A Silent Public Health Menace Rife in Schools? A Science Lab Safety Protocol is Key

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Cathy M. Ezrailson, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, SD
Science lab accidents, some of them major, occur at all levels of public and private schools at least monthly in the United States every year. The United States Safety Council has estimated the number of accidents in schools at 5000 per year and those related to science instruction at about ten percent of that number. This is not only a national, but also an international problem. International lab accidents have occurred where equipment, training and supervision were also inadequate and where there was overcrowding in lab facilities. In the U.S., since the introduction in 1985 of Project 2061 and Science for All Americans, The National Science Educational Standards in 1996 and the Next Generation Science Standards, released in the spring of 2013, more inquiry-based, hands-on experiments at all educational levels are being taught in schools. However, most teachers, expected to institute more labs, fewer demos and lectures in schools may not have been safety-trained (Singer et al. 2005). Not only during instruction, but prior to and proceeding science instruction, a wide-spread lack of knowledge exists about how to select, purchase, handle, store and depose of deteriorating chemicals that populate science storerooms and labs – chemicals blend together in eroding containers creating “chemical cocktails” that may, in time explode. Schools are responsible for OSHA- mandated “standards of care” when teachers design labs and secure equipment for science experiments. School districts also must create policies that clearly state how to provide for regular maintenance and oversight of these materials. The expectation is that science teachers, as licensed professionals, will be “reasonably prudent” and take precautions to prevent lab accidents from occurring. However, without training and oversight, safety checks and safety procedures in place, there is no insurance against future disaster. Students, if they are to handle chemicals and equipment properly, also must be provided with proper safety expectations, protection and precautions. As a means to alleviate these problems, a responsive safety protocol was developed for schools at all levels (especially K-12, where only teachers and not students are covered by OSHA provisions). An example lab safety protocol was developed for middle school and high school classrooms and labs. This paper discusses some of the important safety issues identified, citing data from case studies that includes the results of safety inspections, research into safe practice, regulations and a model for prevention of science lab-related accidents in science classrooms and laboratories.